Friday 28 September 2012

Churches of the Arun Valley

The second of these two gems, St Mary the Virgin North Stoke pictured below St Michael Amberley, was belatedly added to the list, and our route diverted, as I sat on the train down to Sussex last Saturday scouring my Pevsner/Nairn. The intention had been to build on our 19-mile Norfolk churches walk with a heady loop from Amberley to Arundel around the glorious South Downs, both ends of which we know from two-day expeditions but not the middle. Churches, Amberley excepted (and possibly St Nicholas Arundel if we got there in time), were not the object of the exercise. The highly critical Nairn’s praise of North Stoke, however, was unusually warm – ‘delightful, outside and in’ – so I worked out a shorter detour around the Downs and a trail that would then take us along the meanders of the river Arun.

Amberley was always going to be our starting point, and a model village it is too, with its ensemble of castle, church and thatched cottages; all needs of the day-tripper helpfully provided with a tea shoppe, pottery, local store – helpful for assembling a a rather odd sort of picnic – and further refreshments in the village hall, where we succumbed to a cuppa and excellent home made cakes after a longer than expected time in the church. One-time inhabitants include Arthur Rackham and Arnold Bennett, visited by John Cowper Powys who walked over from Burpham to see him (later we met an American on the Downs coming from Burpham who might well been purposefully following in Powys’s footsteps).

At the time of Nairn’s writing, the wall paintings on the south side of St Michael's chancel arch had not been revealed, and he is extraordinarily rude about this splendid Norman arch’s ‘tragic’ scale of detail, its ‘finicky zig-zag ornament’. Well, I love that sort of zig-zagging, so my feelings about it are quite the opposite.

The 12th or 13th century paintings crudely yet clearly depict scenes from Christ’s passion.

The eye is drawn to this and the great arch, but probably first, as one enters through the south doorway, to the stained glass in the window of the north directly facing the visitor. It strikes me as a very beautiful combination of the lamentatory and the joyful. The main image of the deposition is taken from a painting by the local artist to whom the window was dedicated in 1919, Edward Stott.

The designer, quite a discovery for me, was Robert Anning Bell, who has framed the central scene with denizens of art and nature – farm animals along the bottom frieze

and what turn out to be characteristic Anning Bell angels around the arch.

There’s also a memorial plaque to ‘dear child’ Joan Mary Stratton by Eric Gill and his assistant Joseph Cribb

and more superior stained glass, this time from the 1930s, by Veronica Whall of St Edith and an angel.

We had to lift off a harvest festival arrangement to reveal the 1424 brass to John Wantele.

Otherwise, and despite a major Victorian restoration - from which time I assume the wacky floor patterns stems (thought-food for Sophie's floorcloth designs?) -

the impression remains resolutely Norman, including the font

and a west window giving out on to the belfry.

Having given a passing glance to the castle, more a retreat-home to bishops of Chichester in the Middle Ages

we retraced our steps along a shady lane

and walked a little along the South Downs Way, looking down on Amberley

before branching off towards Burpham. Clear views towards the south coast opened up, suggesting time for lunch (including an excellent local pork pie) and a steep sheep-filled valley offered a half-hour of total seclusion

after which we reluctantly left the Downs by taking a track down towards North Stoke, with the sea now very much in evidence.

The tucked-away church here has been lovingly, unfussily restored by the Churches Conservation Trust, not deconsecrated but left usable for the odd service throughout the year.

The beauty of St Mary is that it has hardly been changed since the early 14th century, and – apart from the altered east end – its windows range a century of even earlier design, from lancets of c.1200 to the two- and three-lighters introduced about 70 or so years later.

As with all the work of the excellent CCT, the bare interior highlights the basic colours on the stonework – in this case yellow, ochre and pinkish-red. They certainly enhance the pleasure of the cunningly constructed piscine and sedilia, adjusted to the chancel’s different levels.

Details are few but striking, like the hand which serves as a corbel to hold up a niche, and a sheep’s head in the south transept. Cursed be flash for flattening out the impact.

There are also four fragments of medieval glass, both pairs seeming to indicate the coronation of the Virgin (though some say the male figure here is King David, who knows?). The more finely executed of the two is sited in the east window.

The chancel arch in this instance, so the model guide produced by the CCT tells me, is ‘mainly built of chalky clunch’; seen here from the font.

Around it are fragments of medieval wall-painting - this time purely decorative, flowers and birds.

St Mary is shy of revealing herself, at least from our approach, and only as we walked down a field towards South Stoke did she become briefly visible.

We crossed a surprisingly elaborate bridge across a meander of the Arun, restored with gurkhas’ help in 2009

And made a brief detour to another well-hidden church, well away from any proper road, at South Stoke. The tower of this essentially 11th century building has what Nairn calls a ‘frilly C19 cap to it'.

Otherwise, nothing much to report about the interior. Harvest festival here was clearly not to be the feast of plenty Amberley’s display indicated: in South Stoke's case, cereal packets on the altar and apples lined up beneath the windows, which had a certain piquancy.

We were now tracing the meanders of the Arun, heading towards Burpham

where the church was resolutely shut. It probably would have been anyway after 5, but I took agin the tenor of the notice on the door, which apologized for lockup and alarming owing to recent theft, but gave no hint of where a dedicated visitor might find the key.

And so along the water meadows to Arundel, past a boatwreck which looked like it was grounded in a dried-up Sea of Azof

and with the meanders causing the castle to advance and retreat.

Way too late for an Arundel investigation – we’ll make it the starting point next time - we had a quick drink in an unlovely hotel and then hobbled to the station for the train back to London. The afternoon's sun was now all blurred over in early evening grey skies, and sure enough this was the abrupt end of an Indian summer: on Sunday, originally earmarked for our walk, quite a bit of the country was under water from a month’s worth of rain in a single day.


Laurent said...

Another lovely post so many interesting old churches with great stories to tell in lovely countryside. There is a possibility that I may see you in late October in London. Will let you know.

Susan Scheid said...

So many treasures, once again, on this walk. Even though I know you had a reference book in hand, I do marvel at your study of the particulars for each place--and your photographs are wonderful, as always. Two things I will note: I suspect you'll know this, but in case not, John Cowper Powys lived in Hillsdale New York for a time (in Columbia County, just north of us). We learned of this because friends of ours owned his house. I bought a book of his, but didn't make much headway, sorry to say. The other, is about the floor-tiles. I thought immediately of the malimali shop--is that Sophie of Djenne Djenno of which you speak? If so, yet more reason for amazement at what she can do. Wonderful post.

David said...

Laurent - keep us posted.

Sue - re giving up on Cowper Powys: me too. I can't now remember if I tried to read him before or after meeting a French youth who was passionate about his writing. That was in Ravenna's youth hostel while inter railing in 1982.

And that is indeed our Sophie (click on the link in the piece). Her floorcloths are based on historical research, including ones for Kenwood and Mottisfont.

Anonymous said...

Again, you make me hopesick for england! Please leave some churches alone so I can come too when I get back?
And thank you for include a link to my floorcloth site!
and hello Susan!

Susan Scheid said...

You know, I did click on that link, but wasn't confident it was she I saw there. I was glad to take your prompt to click back, as I read further. What a fascinating history--amazing to think that linoleum was the culprit pushing floorcloths out, as the site notes here: 'The trade continued to flourish throughout the 18th century but the patenting of linoleum by Frederick Walton in 1860 proved to be a blow from which the industry was never to recover.' I love these seemingly small corners of history that, when you look, just open out and out.

David Damant said...

The Earldom of Arundel ( a title subsumed into the 1483 Dukedom of Norfolk - the Duke is the premier peer of the kingdom, ranking after the Royal family) is unique in that the title is tied to the ownership of the castle. The atmosphere in the Arundel area is still sufficiently unchanged to promote a feeling of identification with this aristocratic continuity. Now that the general wealth has so much increased the envy of inherited money has given way to a concern for the preservation of our heritage, and it is noticeable that local populations so often treat the local aristocratic establishment with great respect and even pride - for example in the cases of the Dukedoms of Northumberland and Devonshire, as well as Norfolk. It is obviously in the human psyche to give some allegiance to prominent people, and in the case of the Monarchy this has the value of drawing adulation away from the politicians

Will said...

I always love your church walks. Poking about old buildings is one of Fritz's and my great joys. The earliest we have here on the east coast are two wood houses that date to 1630, the survival of which is amazing for the rainy/wintry New England climate.

Note especially to Sophie and Susan: painted floorcloths are making something of a return here, being offered in kits at the more interesting craft shops and historic sites. They seem well put together with decent materials. They're not terribly sizable but I have seen instructions and patterns to use in bigger rooms for those who are interested.

David said...

Sir David - you're trying to tell me that, with the disparity between wealth and poverty in this country at its highest for decades, we should still be doffing our caps to dukes?

Nevertheless you make a valid point - that so much land which presumably belongs to the Duke of Norfolk's estate has been preserved from development around Arundel that there isn't even a road - only a trainline - running through the middle of the Arun valley, which makes the Stokes especially seem so remote. Normally the National Trust would have to have shown its hand, but not here, though of course the South Downs is/are now a National Park.

Will - I often forget the early 17th century heritage on the east coast, though one's well aware of it in Philadelphia. Interesting that floorcloths may be coming back in fashion. The National Trust and English Heritage have certainly been keen to engage our Sophie in historically authentic projects.

David Damant said...

This business of the aristocracy attracting a certain degree of natural respect ( or something stronger) was shown to me when a tough East German policewoman burst into tears at the border check when she saw from the passports that the two little girls were von Massenbachs -a family she had served in younger and happier days. Hierarchy is not attacked if those at the top are not exploiting the others.
Most of the great properties of the British aristocracy are now in trusts "The only property I own is a small flat" said the late Duke of Devonshire. and his mother has pointed out that in her lifetime the approach as swung from attacking the great fortunes to "conservation". The Sunday Times Rich List puts the wealth of the Duke of Buccleugh at £55 million,whereas one or two of his pictures must be worth that

David Damant said...

A late comment on tiles. I find most things late Victorian exhausting - including especially what I loving call caustic tiles, which have ruined so many churches, to a large extent because one's eyes cannot escape the expanse of floor. But then I was taken by those in charge of the fabric at Westminster Abbey to see the area in front of the high altar which had recently been uncovered to show the 15th ( I think it was) century tiles.......identical to the Victorian efforts. So I apologise to the 19th century ( or conclude that bad taste arises from time to time)
PS the ones you show are actually not too bad,,,,,,